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Local family and local government cut food stamp red tape

Jessica and Freddie Echevarria at their home in Punta Gorda.
Jessica and Freddie Echevarria at their home in Punta Gorda.photo by Michael Bourgeois

On the morning of June 9th, Jessicalynn Echevarria, an expectant mother of two, logged onto her computer to check her expected food stamp benefit. She was going to budget and prepare a grocery list for her family’s meals that month. Instead, a zero balance and a bold lettered ACCOUNT CLOSED stared back at her. To say that she panicked would be an understatement.

“I started to cry”, she said. “I was shaking when I told my husband, he got dizzy and left the room”

Jessica recently recertified with DCF in March adding her unborn third child to the account and has a letter stating that she does not have to certify again until November. But at that moment, paperwork was the last thing on her mind. “How am I going to feed my kids”, was her foremost sentiment. The dreaded thought “We’re gonna have to skip the light bill to buy food” came soon after.

Spending only a second or two in confusion, Jessica grabbed the phone. Her first call to the Department of Children and Families only added to her frustration. “They didn’t care, the lady I talked to read from a board like a robot”. Jessica was told that a new federal law did not require DCF to notify account holders of recertification dates. It would be the responsibility of the individual account holder to keep up with their current status via the ACCESS Florida website. That doesn’t seem feasible because not everyone in the state has access to the Internet, especially those on public assistance.

Erin Gillespie, the Public Information Officer for Florida DCF put that little rumor back in the box. “Our notification system is completely automated”, she voiced the concern of limited Internet access and added, “We certainly wouldn’t take away a means of communications with clients”. Complaints are abound about the DCF in Florida including a ‘useless automated phone line’ and a ‘procession of red tape’. With 2.7 million people to serve as of May, up from 1.2 million from April of ’07, Erin says “the system is a little overburdened”. In circuit 20 alone, which includes Charlotte County, the number of people on food stamps has jumped 100,000 since February 2007’s 39,000. Mrs. Gillespie assures that “We are working very hard to make sure those who need it get assistance as soon as possible, but we also have to keep those who don’t qualify from using up those resources”. As with any bureaucracy, falling through the cracks is possible, but never expected.

On the edge of his patience, Jessica’s husband Freddie Echevarria watched as “My whole world fell apart”. Freddie has been out of work since April of 2009 due to a shoulder injury from a car accident that required major surgery. His doctors are not certain if he will ever be able to fully function at work again and have prepared him for the possibility of being permanently disabled. “It breaks my heart to watch my wife go off to work pregnant while I have to spend my days at home”. His wife Jessica works 24 hours a week over thirty minutes away in Venice as a security guard.

DCF told Jessica that in order to resolve her food stamps issue, she was going to have to reapply, a process that can take weeks if not months. Jessica was told to fax over one pay stub to start. The next day when she followed up, she was told two stubs were needed and there was no record of the person she had spoken to the day before ever working there. That’s when Freddie came undone. “Call our state rep”, so they did.

What rolls down hill? Well, apparently here in Florida, food does. Crystal Fitzgerald is Republican State Senator Mike Bennett’s legislative assistant here in district 21 and within minutes of speaking with Jessica Echevarria, she had Tallahassee scrambling to paint this speed bump. “That’s what we’re here for”, said Ms. Fitzgerald through her cold, the people of Florida do have resources when they get caught in the whirlpool of bureaucracy. Within 24 hours, Jessica and Freddie Echevarria will sit down to dinner with their 2.5 children with a large serving of relief for dessert.

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